It is instructive to mark the arrival of Ferrari’s latest V8-powered, mid-engined two-seater by looking briefly back to its first. Some 35 years ago it was called the 308GTB and despite the fact that it was less powerful than Ferrari claimed, slower, tricky on the limit, cramped and inexactly constructed, it was welcomed then and is remembered now as one of Maranello’s great street cars.
It is a view with which I wholly concur. I’ve always thought pure pace an overrated pursuit as almost every car will one day seem slow by the standards of later generations; what endures are the way a car is styled, the feel of its interior, the sound of its engine and lucidity of its steering. In all these regards a 308GTB is as good now as it was in 1975.
The question is how its direct descendant, this new 458, will be judged by future generations.
The easiest aspect to judge is its looks, a subject upon which the views of an experienced road tester carry no more and possibly less weight than those of a small child. But having the mind of one and the heart of the other, I feel I can say I think it looks fabulous, the best clean-sheet Ferrari design since the 308GTB. The difference is the 308 was hewn from Pininfarina’s richest seam, which had delivered the Boxer, Daytona, Dino and perhaps prettiest of all the 365GTC/4. And that was just the Ferraris. By contrast Pininfarina’s recent work for Maranello has missed more often than it’s hit. But the language of the sleek, menacing, beautifully proportioned 458 speaks of a new design which, like all the best Ferraris, looks only forward.
Nor has Ferrari allowed the pace of change to slow when developing its mechanical specification. Its 4.5-litre engine is only half as big again as the 308’s, but it develops 570bhp, far more than double even the official and hopelessly optimistic 255bhp claimed for the 308. And while us schoolboys marvelled at the fact that the 308’s flat-plane V8 would spin safely at 7700rpm, the 458’s is no less comfortable at 9000rpm, a figure rivalled by no other remotely comparable car.
Allied to launch control and a seven-speed semi-automatic and seamlessly shifting transmission, it has nearly halved the amount of time a 308 needed to reach 60mph – 3.3sec has been seen in independent testing.
So it looks good and goes like hell – but the truth is that you could have said as much about most TVRs, most of which were dreadful cars. More is needed.
And, at first at least, the 458 seems disinclined to provide it. Ferrari has tried hard to evoke images of Formula 1 by loading the steering wheel with more buttons than any other car on sale and offering ancillary information by way of TFT screens, and while some will find this thrilling, I found it merely off-putting. If Ferraris really were all about driving, which is in fact a very simple business, it would follow the example of the best Porsches and place no such artificial barriers between you and it. In fact Ferrari knows a huge proportion of its customers buy into the brand for the image, the statement of wealth and the look on the faces of their friends when they see a driving environment superficially similar to that of a racing car.
But as I tentatively headed out onto British B-roads I discovered a Ferrari that, in one regard at least, does owe something to the past: unlike any of its brethren, it is a surprisingly difficult car to drive. On the road a Ferrari should never be an obedient servant, there to be bent to the driver’s every whim. A Ferrari should need taming, it should require both the respect and the undivided attention of its driver at all time. The 458 does.
It’s a wide car and one that tends to fidget over the lumps and bumps of British B-roads, even if you set the dampers as soft as possible. You can drive it slowly and while it is tolerant of such behaviour, it is not receptive to it. Given that all 458 owners will have an S-class Mercedes or similar at home, it is entirely appropriate for it to ask why you’ve woken it up if you’re not going to use it properly. It is not simply far faster than the F430 it replaces, it has a far harder core, too. Which is excellent.
Its problem on the road is environmental. Unlike the Editor my time with the 458 coincided not with the Circuito delle Madonie, but the roads of rural Leicestershire where any attempt to use the car’s performance merely shortened still further time spent between queues of traffic.
Then again, you tend not to stay stuck for long in one of these because all it takes is the shortest straight and a couple of tugs on the left-hand paddle and you’re not only past, but gone. And on those rare occasions where it could be driven as its makers intended, it was all you could hope a Ferrari might be. It was flashingly fast, of course, but also utterly thrilling. It communicates exactly how quickly you are travelling unlike others which remove you from the sensations of driving so much you can be genuinely surprised when you look at the speedo. Its brakes are flawless, its gearshifts instantaneous. The grip is so abundant and the safety systems so numerous and well tuned that only a lunatic would unstick it in the dry. It is, in short, a perfectly optimised Ferrari road car, all and more that the majority of its customers will be hoping for.
Almost. For just a few will venture out onto race tracks in their 458s, only to discover that a car that’s close to perfect on the public road can be some distance from it on a private track.
Essentially there are two issues working together if not to poison the experience of driving the 458 as fast as it will possibly go, then certainly to pollute it a little. First is the steering which, like all mid-engined Ferraris since power assistance was adopted for the F355 15 years ago, is lacking somewhat in feel. But its real problem is that it’s substantially too direct and aggressive, creating an unusually big reaction from the car to any given input. You notice it less on the road because you can get away with being less precise. But on the track where accuracy is everything it’s a needless annoyance, as if Ferrari had made it that way to make it feel sporting, in the same way Audi used to over-servo its brakes to make them feel better than they were. The second problem is that the transition from quite heavy understeer to fast-moving oversteer is too swift, making it a difficult car to balance where you want it, on the cusp between the two. On Ferrari’s advice I drove it in ‘race’ mode which left in place one final safety net to keep me out of the gravel, and I was grateful for it.
I’m pleased to say the 458 is a fine Ferrari, one of its very best in modern times. With slower steering it might make my top five road Ferraris of all time and even as it is its place in the top ten is secure. One thing’s for sure, the McLaren MP4-12C is going to have to be a landmark to beat it.
ENGINE: 4499cc, V8 – 90°
TOP SPEED: 202mph
POWER: 570bhp at 9000rpm
FUEL/CO2: 20.6mpg, 307g/km